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Japan hangs two prisoners, including first convicted in lay judge trial

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Japan on Friday hanged two death-row prisoners including, for the first time, one convicted by lay judges.

It cast a spotlight on the moral and emotional burden of nonprofessionals being asked to hand down death sentences, as participants in lay judge trials may be required to do.

The executions were the first signed off by Justice Minister Mitsuhide Iwaki, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who took the post in October.

Japan and the United States are the only two members of the Group of Seven industrialized nations that still practice capital punishment, though figures by the Death Penalty Information Center show executions in the U.S. hit a 20-year low in 2014 at 35 in seven states.

The killings Friday morning involved two convicted murderers. One killed two women he had intended to rob, while the other stabbed to death his landlord and two other people.

Sumitoshi Tsuda, 63, was convicted and sentenced to hang in a lay judge trial in connection with the 2009 triple-murder at his apartment in Kawasaki.

His death penalty, handed down by the Yokohama District Court in June 2011, was finalized soon after, when he withdrew an appeal. Tsuda’s victims lived adjacent to him, and prosecutors said he harbored hard feelings against them.

Kazuyuki Wakabayashi, 39, strangled and bludgeoned to death two women — a 52-year-old mother and her 24-year-old daughter — in Iwate Prefecture in 2006 after breaking into their home with the intent of committing robbery and rape. Wakabayashi dumped their bodies on a mountain.

“Their crimes were extremely selfish and brutal,” Iwaki told a news conference following the executions. “I scrutinized their cases very carefully before authorizing their executions.”

Asked about the precedent set by Tsuda’s execution, Iwaki said only that he “fulfilled (his) professional responsibility” in following through on the decision made by ordinary citizens in deliberation with professional judges.

Under the lay judge system, introduced in 2009, six citizens decide on guilt and the sentence in a closed-door discussion with three professional judges.

Asked whether the ministry would offer support for former lay judges who might feel responsibility for Tsuda’s death, the minister replied that it could be considered.

Masayoshi Taguchi, one of 20 former lay judges who petitioned the Justice Ministry in February last year for an immediate halt to capital punishment, said the only thing that would alleviate anguish by lay judges at sentencing would be the full disclosure of information relating to the death penalty.

Taguchi said some former lay judges found such a decision difficult without understanding how executions were carried out or why, for example, prisoners were only given a few hours’ notice before being sent to the gallows.

“It’s like you are being told to keep driving while blindfolded, only to end up running over somebody,” Taguchi said.

Without greater clarity, “lay judges will forever be burdened with the thought that they played a part in taking away somebody’s life,” he said.

A fellow former lay judge, who served in a Tokyo robbery-murder trial, said the penalty was partly understandable as “Japan adopted this system in accordance with law.” But Sakae Wagatsuma, 52, from Iiyama, Nagano Prefecture, said the sentencing should be left to professional judges alone.

“Making citizens decide whether to hand down death sentences shows the irresponsibility of the judiciary,” she said.

In the trial in which Wagatsuma served, the defendant was sentenced to death. The ruling was later reduced by a higher court to life in prison.

“The more time that passed after the verdict, the more I started questioning the death penalty system and now I waver on the issue, unable to find my answer,” she said. “I believe that people who took part in sentencing the two inmates (hanged today) may be going through the same feelings.”

Shinichi Ishizuka, a professor of criminal law at Ryukoku University, said the fact that Tsuda withdrew his appeal meant an opportunity to examine the lay judges’ decision was lost.

“I presume the lay judges who took part in the rulings on the two inmates will have to deal with emotional distress for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Ishizuka stressed the judges were selected to represent the citizens, so their moral dilemma should be shared by everyone else.

“All citizens should think hard about the death penalty” and the consequences of such rulings, Ishizuka said.

The Japan chapter of Amnesty International condemned the executions, slamming the government for adhering to capital punishment despite a global trend toward abolishing the practice.

“By refusing to stop, Japan will remain one of the few countries with little regard for human rights,” the organization said.

Friday’s executions left a total of 127 inmates on death row. Of those, 92 are applying for a retrial and 25 for an amnesty.

Information from Kyodo added